Wednesday, November 13, 2013

More Anthony Powell on John Aubrey

Monday's post on Anthony Powell's John Aubrey and His Friends led to a Twitter exchange with John Wilson, Powell fan and editor of Books and Culture. John kindly pointed me to a passage in the third volume of Powell's autobiography, To Keep the Ball Rolling: Faces in Our Time, wherein Powell identifies precisely what drew him to Aubrey:
Antiquary, biographer, folklorist, above all a writer in whom a new sort of sensibility is apparent, the appreciation of the oddness of the individual human being. Aubrey's real originality in this respect is often dismissed as trivial observation, dilettantism, idle gossip, by those who have skimmed through his writings superficially. . . . Aubrey, it is true, was incapable of running his personal affairs in a coherent manner, accordingly, as he himself pointed out, never had an opportunity to work consistently for a long period at any of the subjects which preoccupied his mind. That did not prevent him from contributing to English history a very fair proportion of its best character sketches and anecdotes. . . . Aubrey's essentially new approach was vested in the manner in which he looked at things with an unprejudiced eye; an instinct for what his contemporaries, or historical figures, were like as individuals; his mastery of the ideal phrase for describing people.
John pointed out that the criticisms Powell cites as inappropriately made of Aubrey are not dissimilar to those levied by readers only casually acquainted with Powell's work. And indeed, Powell's entire description of Aubrey reveals him as more than merely a biographical subject; rather, he is a kindred spirit, his approach to people and life lining up almost perfectly with Powell's own.

Elsewhere in the book, while writing about Aubrey, Powell makes a case for the pleasures, and value, of archival research:
People who have never undertaken this sort of first-hand research perhaps miss something in life, a peculiar magic which makes time-travelling practicable. As one becomes increasingly steeped in a period like Aubrey's, one acquires for the moment a strangely intimate acquaintance with a crowd of deceased persons. After such burrowings into the past come to an end, so equally does the sense of existing in another century; the names of Aubrey's friends hard to remember like those of some wartime colleagues.
Which leads me to two thoughts:

1. The only thing close to research I've done in the past twenty years was working on The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany. And while that was, in research terms, a very modest project, the materials being all fairly recent and for the most part discoverable via contemporary library tools, at the same time I recognize the "peculiar magic" Powell describes. I felt it as Ethan Iverson and I were going through Westlake's files, examining each piece of repurposed hotel stationery and typewritten note to see if this one, or that one, might yield a surprise discovery. (Enough of them did to even now, seven months later, leave me excited when I think about it.)

2. As for living with the characters you unearth, that calls to mind Powell's own fiction, and the way that any fan will eventually mention to a new reader that once you're steeped in Dance, you will start to see its characters everywhere in your life. You know them so well, and they're drawn from such inexhaustible human patterns and drives, that they populate not just your imagination, but your toolkit for understanding the world. Unlike wartime comrades, they don't seem to ever fade.

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